Still, the report provided contrasting images of Americans’ financial well-being, also showing that the number of people living in poverty continued to decline in 2019. According to the Census figures, the official poverty rate fell to 10.5 last year, compared to 11.8 percent in 2018, marking the fifth consecutive annual decline in the national poverty rate.
Though the reasons are sharply debated, the new data signify that the first three years of President Trump’s tenure were a period of contracting insurance coverage. They reversed gains that began near the end of the Great Recession and accelerated during early years of expanded access to health plans and Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act. That sprawling law that was a signature domestic achievement of President Obama and has been derided by Republicans, including Trump, ever since.
The Census findings are laden with political significance, given that polling consistently has shown health care as among the most prominent issues on voters’ minds for the presidential election less than two months away. And the pandemic, in which at least 6.5 million people in the United States have reported cases of covid-19, and deaths are approaching 200,000, has cast into neon the importance of being able to afford health care when sick.
As has been true historically, the majority of people with health insurance received it through their job — 55.4 percent. That is a slight increase from the 55.2 percent with employer-provided coverage the previous year.
These changes came before the pandemic upended the economy and the health benefits tethered to jobs, leaving millions of Americans suddenly uninsured or turning to Medicaid.
Tuesday’s data also showed that median U.S. income — the point at which half of U.S. families earn more and half earn less — rose to $68,703, up 6.8 percent from the 2018 median of $64,324.
The 2019 data offer a final snapshot of America’s record-long economic expansion, which came to a sudden and devastating end with the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the United States earlier this year. By the end of 2019, the unemployment rate was at a 50-year low of 3.5 percent. Women outnumbered men in the workforce for only the second time, buoyed by a tight labor market and fast job growth in health care and education. Minimum wage increases were also fueling faster wage growth for those at the bottom.
Those historic gains also meant that Americans who had long been marginalized from the workforce were increasingly able to join it. During a national listening tour last year, Federal Reserve officials repeatedly heard that in low-income communities, and particularly communities of color, a tight labor market was a crucial driver of economic growth. Going into 2020, Fed leaders were essentially prepared to let the economy continue to run hot so that full employment could be felt by everyone.
But since March, job losses have disproportionately hit low-income workers and women, many of whom held service sector jobs that were gutted by lockdown measures. Nearly 40 percent of households with income below $40,000 were laid off or furloughed by early April, according to the Fed. Grocery prices are on the rise as more Americans are pressed to pay for basic staples. And just over half of the 22 million total jobs lost between February and April have not returned.
Meanwhile, the recession is widening America’s longstanding economic inequality. For the wealthiest Americans, a strong stock market, low mortgage rates and recovered job losses mean that the downturn is more or less over. But Americans without a stake in the markets, and whose jobs may be permanently wiped away, are struggling to get by, especially as hopes for another Congressional stimulus package fade away.